Name a common sandwich ingredient and/or household cleaner, and I will tell you how long WikiHow suggests you should keep it on your face to achieve a “natural, dew-y look." In numerous futile attempts to cure my acne, I have smeared every item in my fridge onto my face, a gross Bob Ross performance art piece where I am both painter and canvas. I have measured out my life in corrosive avocado and apple cider vinegar concoctions.
After I fell asleep wearing turmeric and honey on my face one night, effectively ruining my sheets and multiple articles of clothing, I decided it was best to consult a dermatologist rather than to continue attempting to self-medicate.
I felt nervous and vulnerable as I walked into the dermatologist’s office, hair pulled back, face free of makeup, dark acne marks completely visible. As the doctor examined my face, she explained that scarring occurs because of my “problematic melanocytes," which leave marks at the source of any wound or zit. She said that, in order to achieve flawless skin, I need to start bleaching my skin.
I told her that I was apprehensive about skin lightening procedures. Growing up spending summers in India, I watched countless commercials urging everyone, especially women, to avoid the sun and to use Fair and Lovely, a skin-bleaching cream, in order to stay beautiful despite the intensity of the summer sun. On a more recent trip, I saw a commercial for a similar cream marketed towards Indian women that encouraged them to bleach their vaginas in order to satisfy their husbands’ sexual desires. These commercials speak to a history of colonialism in India that has instilled such a desire for white skin — and to general global aspirations towards whiteness — that advertisements explicitly tell women that they will be denied love if they embrace their natural bodies. How could I pay someone to bleach my skin and not be reminded of these histories and experiences, and not feel somehow complicit in these oppressions?
My doctor was startled that I was questioning her diagnosis and prescription, and, as I grew more and more angry, she did as well. Finally, she said, “You’re just going to have to choose between your natural skin tone and flawless skin.” There it was — my doctor saw an inherent incompatibility between the amount of melanin my body produces and the kind of beauty she advocates.
I left the office feeling confused by the interaction and unsure if I had spoken out of turn, if I had given my doctor a reason to doubt my credibility, if I should have tried harder to remain calm. I had a general sense that, as we enter the sterile spaces of our doctor’s offices, our doctors exist outside of the socially-ingrained biases that affect the rest of the world. There is no racism in the name of science, right? There are only chemical concoctions that fix the imbalances in our bodies, helping us return to homeostasis.
But, this guise of objectivity makes it difficult to recognize that medical personhood is defined by a specific, often unachievable, white standard, and that “returning to homeostasis” for one body means radical alteration for another.
My dermatologist’s proposed medical solution was essentially a clinical whitewashing, one that was emotionally damaging and that has left me disenchanted with the notion of seeking medical attention for my skin, but that is not immediately life threatening. (Though, of course, a generally conditioned distrust of doctors does result in many people of color avoiding treatment for more serious issues.)
But, in other situations, the ways in which the medical field has dealt with non-normative bodies and identities has been much more alarming. Most obviously, our country has a dark history of hospitals using slaves to test the effects of new drugs. And, until the 1970s, prisons routinely conducted experiments on black prisoners. Racial bias affects black communities in more insidious ways as well.
An article in the Atlantic outlines the medical history of spirometer use, for example. Originally used to measure lung capacities of Civil War soldiers, the device established the lung capacity of white soldiers as the standard and used the measured lower lung capacities of black soldiers as evidence of physical ineptitude that only the forced labor of slavery could remedy. Spirometers are still used today, though they are supposedly “race-corrected," requiring doctors to ask or, more often, to guess, what a patient’s race is and to reduce the values for lung health for those patients perceived as black. As there is rarely any discussion about how environmental and socioeconomic factors, rather than biological difference, may play a role indifferently recorded lung capacities for different communities, the spirometer simultaneously establishes a hierarchy of lung health while also compartmentalizing and reducing racial identity, a largely social and historical construction, to an entirely biological phenomenon.
In such relationships between patient and doctor, the burden of recognizing and advocating for the value of non-normative bodies falls entirely on the patient. But how could a patient ever possibly be informed or assertive enough to advocate effectively and correctly? When should I listen to my dermatologist’s advice, and when should I tell her that I will not attempt to sculpt myself into the ideal white body? How can people of color distinguish instances where doctors are saving their lives from those where they are pathologizing difference?
During our interaction, my doctor was also clearly confused by my anger. To some degree, I understand her confusion. Much like her verdict is expected to go unquestioned, it is assumed that as the patient, I check my insecurities at the door.
And yes, I chose to walk into her office, to enter a patient-doctor relationship in which I inherently know less and am asking for help and guidance. I wanted and continue to want smooth, uniformly-colored skin. She was offering me a way to achieve it, quite possibly the most efficient and long-lasting solution. Why was I complaining?
But, the decision to enter her office did not mark the end of my internal struggle with my acne. We do not all have a clearly-defined-Mia-Thermopolis-moment of transformation where we allow our stylists or doctors to give us makeovers. The path towards normative beauty inherently requires some sacrifice of self- and the sacrifice gets bigger the less normative the body. This sacrifice cannot be expected to be made quietly or easily.
I entered the dermatologist’s office juggling multiple concerns and carrying with me complex personal anxieties. I wondered if, instead of dermatology, I should try a Goop cleanse or Ayurvedic yoga, or radical self-love, as if each is mutually exclusive and potentially less damaging to my sense of self-worth. I wondered if it was acceptable to desire conventional beauty, to alter my body in ways that might make me feel more confident, or if I should try harder to fight the exhausting requirements placed on women and people of color. Should I “just love the body I have," as I was recently encouraged to do by an acquaintance who told me that women who used makeup to contour their faces and hide acne marks are “the worst thing that has happened to women in the last 10 years”?
As I explore ways to fix my acne, I need a doctor who understands my relationship with my body, or who at least understands this relationship as complicated, caked with layers of contradictory advice, insecurity, and continued uncertainty. I need compassionate care that not only understands different skin types but actively works to undermine the racist histories that have caused in these insecurities. I am tired of trying to play catch-up, reaching for a body that cannot be my own.
Vrinda Jagota is a writer living in New York. She feels #blessed to be born in the right generation. On multiple occasions, she has also been the answer to the "Who is your most evil friend?" Facebook quiz. You can follow her on Twitter @clichez4ever if you're a patron of selfie culture.
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